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Last month, in the first of this two-part series we learned about the evolution of ”Field To Fork,” a model Public-Private Partnership in Charlotte, North Carolina among Fuel Pizza ,the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District, the Mecklenburg County Health Department, and Charlotte Green. Field to Fork started in the 2009/10 school year with five pilot schools and has since expanded. Lucky classes are selected to plant “pizza gardens” including tomatoes, bell peppers, spinach, basil, and oregano, and receive nutrition, gardening and cooking lessons from the project team members. Plants are started in a greenhouse in January and transplanted to the school gardens in March. The culmination of the program is a field trip to the local Fuel Pizza restaurant where pre-conceived notions of what vegetables taste like are shattered.
Zach Current, Fuel Pizza Manager, looks forward to supervising each field trip. He works hard to make the experience at the restaurant as hands-on and engaging for the students as possible. He realized after the first pilot year that the students needed to be more actively involved in the kitchen; they needed to get their hands dirty and to understand the whole process of food preparation. So now he starts with a tour of the kitchen, including the walk-in freezer. Students are involved in every aspect of their pizza preparation, from washing and preparing the vegetables (no knives), seasoning the vegetables, stretching the dough (multi-grain honey whole wheat), and spreading the sauce. Selecting their toppings becomes a lesson in portion control.
When it comes time to add the toppings, students are given the choice of having a pizza with ½ cheese (low-fat) and ½ vegetables, or all vegetables. Last year, out of the 250 students who participated in the program, Andrew Thiessen (Charlotte Green) reports that only 3 chose cheese in lieu of vegetables. “It works!” exclaimed Thiessen. “When you get kids to grow their own vegetables, they’ll eat them because they have a vested interest in them. They’ve been waiting for three months for their vegetables to grow. That’s a lot of anticipation for a little kid!” Thiessen was speaking from personal experience. As a child, he had an opportunity to spend summers working on an organic farm which taught him about healthy eating and also sparked his interest in horticulture and soil science. He is excited to participate in the Field to Fork program because he believes it can be that game changer so desperately needed for dozens of Charlotte youth. “The majority of Americans do not eat healthy, and it doesn’t need to be that way,” he said.
Allison Mignery agrees. As a public health dietitian, she believed that the programs the County had before to combat childhood obesity did not reach enough youth. They were more focused on working 1:1 with students who needed assistance. She explained that before the Field to Fork program, there were school gardening programs and health education programs, but the school district did not have a formalized curriculum around nutrition and gardening. Mignery believes that this new model has the potential to make “a larger and lasting impact to support healthy eating and active living.”
Pre- and post-project surveys of teachers and students suggest preliminary results that are very encouraging. Teachers report that some students have started gardening at home, and that students are bringing healthier lunches from home. Before the program, 73% of the students had never tried spinach, and after the program, 60% give spinach a “favorable” rating. All of the other fruits/vegetables/herbs grown in the Pizza Garden fared a 51-67% favorable rating. Students’ knowledge about nutrition and a healthy diet increased 25% in the post-program survey.
Buoyed by the success of the program, Field to Fork partners were eager to expand the program to meet the growing demand from area schools, but they could not continue to do it without outside funding. For the first two years of the program, Fuel’s founders Jeremy Wladis & Paula Seefeldt, along with the other partners, self-funded the program. Fuel provided the seeds and aprons and other program supplies. They also closed their restaurants to the public during the field trips and supported Zach Current’s participation. Charlotte Green’s Thiessen and County Health Department’s Mignery also worked pro-bono on the project.
Fuel Pizza, a for-profit restaurant chain, could not apply for grant funds, but their not-for-profit partner Charlotte Green could. This past spring, Charlotte Green received a $5,000 grant from the 704 Project, a local Charlotte “giving circle” of young professionals. This grant will enable Field to Fork to expand in the 2011-2012 school year to include 14 classes and will pay for supplies and school buses for trips. It also allowed them to hire a part-time grant coordinator, Katie Cooper.
“This program is a great model because it shows what can be accomplished when the public and private sector work together for a common goal,” says Seefeldt. She went on to explain that the pizza chain did not have gardening expertise, curricula, or access to classrooms on their own; the gardening and nutrition professionals did not have access to restaurant facilities. Thus, the partnership between the county, the school district, the not-for-profit greening organization and the restaurant chain was a perfect symbiotic relationship. Seefeldt is so pleased with the success of the program that she and Wladis are exploring starting a Field to Fork Program in Washington, D.C. when they open their new restaurants there in 2012.
Being involved in this program has forever impacted the project partners and the way they approach their regular jobs. Current reflects “This is the best thing we’ve done in all my years in the restaurant business.” He was so moved by the program that he changed the menu at the Fuel Pizza chain. Current added a “Pyramid Pizza,” reflecting the five food groups of the USDA Food Pyramid, which includes whole grain crust, fruit (tomatoes), fresh vegetables, low-fat dairy, protein (chicken or beef), and healthy fat (olive oil). However, with the recent release of new USDA guidelines (choosemyplate.gov), he may have to change it to the “My Plate Pizza!” Not as catchy, but still delicious and nutritious.
Lisa Maller is an urban environmental planner and New York City Public School parent, volunteering to make New York City public schools more sustainable.
For more information, see the Field to Fork Program website or contact Katie Cooper, Program Coordinator at email@example.com.
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